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A group holds up a banner advocating for alternative laws for sex workers in Toronto last year.
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Prostitution controversy continues

AIDS Calgary Awareness Association supports prostitution's decriminalization

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On May 8, AIDS Calgary Awareness Association released a statement endorsing the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada.

"We believe that criminalizing [sex workers] penalizes them," said ACAA spokesperson Simonne LeBlanc.

ACAA believes the best method to help sex workers is a harm reduction approach. This approach does not push workers to leave the sex trade. Rather, ACAA provides support for individuals to make the decision.

"It's important to note that we only work with adults," said LeBlanc. "When it comes to youth there are completely different laws."

ACAA is the only agency in Calgary using the harm reduction approach with sex workers.

"If they want to leave or if they want to stay they should have support," said LeBlanc.

Men, women and transgendered sex workers frequent the ACAA offices because they do not receive any pressure to leave their industry, she said. "We don't tell them they have to leave [the sex trade] or we won't help them."

Dean of Research and professor of sociology at Saint Thomas University Gayle MacDonald, who co-authored Sex Workers Talk Back, said it is important to understand that decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

MacDonald pointed out that alcohol and lottery tickets were once criminalized. "In both those situations the state took control. I'm not suggesting that necessarily has to be done, but alcohol and gaming are highly regulated."

In the 1990s, a Calgary volunteer-based organization called Street Teams was put in place to patrol the public areas where prostitutes congregate to help get them off the streets.

Street Teams is less active now. It is run under the Boys and Girls club, according to LeBlanc.

LeBlanc does not think the organization has affected the level of prostitution in Calgary.

"Prostitution hasn't gone down," said LeBlanc. "It's changed."

It is estimated that 80 per cent of prostitution in Canada is conducted in-house. Working from home appeals to sex workers, as it provides the ability to screen clients in order to avoid "bad dates." In-house work gives the sex workers a sense of security and decreases the likelihood of violence.

According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women website, female sex workers are 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than the general public. This is one reason in-house prostitution is on the rise.

Violence against sex workers extends also to transgendered and male prostitutes.

"The level of violence perpetuated against men [who are sex workers] is unbelievable," said MacDonald. "Transgendered [sex workers] are the most disadvantaged because they are the most misunderstood, but they make the most money."

MacDonald believes the stigma of sex workers extends to all three groups. However, she said they all experience violence differently.

LeBlanc thinks society's perception of sex workers is skewed.

"Prostitutes are never taken seriously," said LeBlanc. "They cannot take complaints to the police."

ACAA says in their statement that the Criminal Code of Canada "suggests that sex workers are second-class citizens, which is a violation of their human rights."

However, LeBlanc believes it is more than the law, it is how the government responds. "You see they don't offer support. Everyone has rights but the sex workers do not. So they must not be full-fledged citizens."

MacDonald agrees that the laws are not protecting the workers. "The message we're sending is that it is okay to abuse sex workers. We want to show that it is not okay to abuse anyone."

In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution, including street prostitution.

LeBlanc thinks laws that provide support and rights to prostitutes are beneficial.

She said Sweden has similar laws to Canada, but is more supportive of sex workers.

ACAA believes Canada would benefit from creating laws that protect and support the sex workers.

"I think that you'll always have fear mongering around decriminalization," LeBlanc said of the groups who do not support the decriminalization of prostitution.

see Decriminalization, page 8

The Calgary Police Service, LeBlanc said, is not supportive of a change to the laws regarding prostitution.

A Calgary Police Service spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, had no comment on the ACAA's proposal to change the laws. "Our job is to not comment on the law, just to uphold it."

Sections 210 to 213 in the Criminal Code of Canada state that being a prostitute is not illegal but the solicitation, communication and owning or working with a bawdy house is an indictable offence and can lead to imprisonment.

In Canada, municipalities have the ability to create their own laws surrounding sex workers.

In 1997, the Vancouver police announced they were no longer intending to arrest prostitutes, as they were not the root of the problem. However, in other cities prostitutes are arrested on a daily basis.

According to First Advocates website ­-- an advocacy group for prostitutes-- since 1985, 93 per cent of prostitution charges have been for "communicating for the purpose of prostitution."

More recently, in 2007, Vancouver attempted to open a cooperative brothel, but did not succeed. The initiative was lead by the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities and a group of sex workers. The cooperative brothel was to be owned and operated by sex workers. Supporters of the initiative said the cooperative brothel would decrease violence against sex workers and allow for increased empowerment.

Activist groups within the city, spearheaded by the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, avidly protested the brothel's opening.

"Rape relief shelters often come from a radical feminist view point. They see women as victims," said MacDonald. "But not all women are victims. A cooperative implies governance for the sex worker."

MacDonald also thinks the cooperative would reduce violence.

"Overall the effect would reduce violence," stated MacDonald, "because at the moment sex workers become the repository for violence."

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